February 26, 2006

War Madness, Propaganda, and the "Little Mother"

In doing some reading about World War I, I realize that much of today's pro-war propaganda is almost mild in certain ways, compared to its intensity and viciousness at various times in the past (although I should emphasize it is no less, and perhaps even more, dangerous for that). I just received Robert Graves's memoir, Good-bye to All That (and my great thanks to the reader who purchased it for me). Graves served in The Great War, and his book, first published in 1929, provoked considerable anger when it appeared. It should be noted that Graves demonstrated great courage in combat; he was so badly wounded in the Battle of the Somme that everyone at first thought he had died. Graves's colonel even sent a letter to Graves's mother, expressing his condolences on her son's death. Graves later prevailed upon the London Times to print a brief correction notice:
Captain Robert Graves, Royal Welch Fusiliers, officially reported died of wounds, wishes to inform his friends that he is recovering from his wounds at Queen Alexandra's Hospital...
In his introduction, Paul Fussell (author of the indispensable, The Great War and Modern Memory), writes that, "the world that the war had taught Graves to see is a world of contingency and constant mistakes, not to mention outright fatuity." Fussell continues:
The wide gulf separating Graves's vision from that of the ordinary patriotic British citizen can be measured in one letter from an outraged reader of Good-bye to All That:

"You are a discredit to the Service, disloyal to your comrades and typical of that miserable breed which tries to gain notoriety by belittling others. Your language is just 'water-closet,' and evidently your regiment resented such an undesirable member. The only good page is that quoting The Little Mother, but even there you betray the degenerate mind by interleaving it between obscenities."
The "Little Mother" is an extraordinary example of the madness of war, and Fussell quite rightly notes that "[t]he testimonials earned by this famous letter suggest a society for which the only accurate term would be 'sick' ..."

In introducing this episode, Graves writes:
England looked strange to us returned soldiers. We could not understand the war madness that ran about everywhere, looking for a pseudo-military outlet. The civilians talked a foreign language; and it was newspaper language. I found serious conversation with my parents all but impossible. Quotation from a single typical document of this time will be enough to show what we were facing.
The letter is fairly lengthy, but I set it forth in full so that you can appreciate its full nature and effect:

By a Little Mother

A Message to the Pacifists A Message to the Bereaved

A Message to the Trenches

Owing to the immense demand from home and from the trenches for this letter, which appeared in The Morning Post, the editor found it necessary to place it in the hands of London publishers to be reprinted in pamphlet form, seventy-five thousand copies of which were sold in less than a week direct from the publishers.

Extract from a letter from Her Majesty

The Queen was deeply touched at the "Little Mother's" beautiful letter, and Her Majesty fully realizes what her words must mean to our soldiers in the trenches and in hospitals.

To the Editor of 'The Morning Post'

Sir,--As a mother of an only child--a son who was early and eager to do his duty--may I be permitted to reply to Tommy Atkins, whose letter appeared in your issue of the 9th inst.? Perhaps he will kindly convey to his friends in the trenches, not what the Government thinks, not what the Pacifists think, but what the mothers of the British race think of our fighting men. It is a voice which demands to be heard, seeing that we play the most important part in the history of the world, for it is we who 'mother the men' who have to uphold the honour and traditions not only of our Empire but of the whole civilized world.

To the man who pathetically calls himself a 'common soldier,' may I say that we women, who demand to be heard, will tolerate no such cry as 'Peace! Peace!' where there is no peace. The corn that will wave over land watered by the blood of our brave lads shall testify to the future that their blood was not spilt in vain. We need no marble monuments to remind us. We only need that force of character behind all motives to see this monstrous world tragedy brought to a victorious ending. The blood of the dead and the dying, the blood of the 'common soldier' from his 'slight wounds' will not cry to us in vain. They have all done their share, and we, as women, will do ours without murmuring and without complaint. Send the Pacifists to us and we shall very soon show them, and show the world, that in our homes at least there shall be no 'sitting at home warm and cosy in the winter, cool and "comfy" in the summer'. There is only one temperature for the women of the British race, and that is white heat.
With those who disgrace their sacred trust of motherwood we have nothing in common. Our ears are not deaf to the cry that is ever ascending from the battlefield from men of flesh and blood whose indomitable courage is borne to us, so to speak, on every blast of the wind. We women pass on the human ammunition of 'only sons' to fill up the gaps, so that when the 'common soldier' looks back before going 'over the top' he may see the women of the British race at his heels, reliable, dependent, uncomplaining.

The reinforcements of women are, therefore, behind the 'common soldier'. We gentle-nurtured, timid sex did not want the war. It is no pleasure to us to have our homes made desolate and the apple of our eye taken away. We would sooner our lovable, promising, rollicking boy stayed at school. We would have much preferred to have gone on in a light-hearted way with our amusements and our hobbies. But the bugle call came, and we have hung up the tennis racquet, we've fetched our laddie from school, we've put his cap away, and we have glanced lovingly over his last report, which said 'Excellent'--we've wrapped them all in a Union Jack and locked them up, to be taken out only after the war to be looked at. A 'common soldier', perhaps, did not count on the women, but they have their part to play, and we have risen to our responsibility. We are proud of our men, and they in turn have to be proud of us. If the men fail, Tommy Atkins, the women won't.

Tommy Atkins to the front,
He has gone to bear the brunt.
Shall 'stay-at-homes' do naught but snivel and but sigh?
No, while your eyes are filling
We are up and doing, willing
To face the music with you--or to die!

Women are created for the purpose of giving life, and men to take it. Now we are giving it in a double sense. It's not likely we are going to fail Tommy. We shall not flinch one iota, but when the war is over he must not grudge us, when we hear the bugle call of 'Lights out', a brief, very brief, space of time to withdraw into our secret chambers and share with Rachel the Silent the lonely anguish of a bereft heart, and to look once more on the college cap, before we emerge stronger women to carry on the glorious work our men's memories have handed down to us for now and all eternity.

Yours, etc.,
A Little Mother
Here are a few of the testimonials the letter received:
Florence Nightingale did great and grand things for the soldiers of her day, but no woman has done more than the "Little Mother", whose now famous letter to The Morning Post has spread like wild-fire from trench to trench. I hope to God it will be handed down in history, for nothing like it has ever made such an impression on our fighting men. I defy any man to feel weak-hearted after reading it...My God! she makes us die happy. One who has Fought and Bled.
The "Little Mother's" letter should reach every corner of the earth--a letter of the loftiest ideal, tempered with courage and the most sublime sacrifice. Percival H. Monkton
And this one:
I have lost my two dear boys, but since I was shown the "Little Mother's" beautiful letter a resignation too perfect to describe has calmed all my aching sorrow, and I would now gladly give my sons twice over. A Bereaved Mother
One wonders if the "Bereaved Mother's" sons would agree with her eagerness to see them killed all over again -- in a war that was entirely futile and pointless, that caused untold destruction and eight million dead military personnel, and about 23 million wounded and missing soldiers (there are no reliable figures for civilian casualties) -- and that led directly into the rest of the horrors of the twentieth century. If you had any doubt at all, the "Little Mother's" letter was part of an "infamous propaganda pamphlet," as Fussell describes it in his own book (although it appears that -- "of course," as Graves observed -- many of the testimonials were genuine). Fussell accurately describes the letter as "sentimental, bloodthirsty, complacent, cruel, fatuous, and self-congratulatory, all at once...."

In terms of the war program, its major purpose was to stave off any serious consideration of a negotiated peace short of "unconditional surrender." The propaganda maintained that such a negotiated peace would betray all those who had died before, just as we are told today that leaving Iraq would betray those who are already dead in a futile, horrific and profoundly counterproductive war. The "Little Mother's" letter and many similar propaganda techniques achieved their purpose: the slaughter went on for a few more years.

Yet today, and despite this and much more evidence from history, there are those who would deliberately run the risk of unleashing this kind of barbarism still again. Well, "sick" is one word for it.